Robert Frost as “terrifying poet” of a frozen inner landscape

From The Chronicle of Higher Education, a deeply moving, lovely, and troubling meditation on Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by literature professor H. William Rice, whose father, a Methodist minister, suffered through a transformative depression when Rice was a child and read Frost (among other things) in order to cope with it:

[This] is the first poem I remember reading and appreciating. . . . I first read the poem because my father told me to. He was a Methodist minister and a bit more intellectual than most ministers. I thought that if I read the books he read, I would be smart. But the Frost book he pointed me to was different; it turned out he read it to cope with depression. I can still remember the tattered paperback with white-haired Frost — who was born 139 years ago, on March 26 — looking wistful on the cover.

. . . . My memories of that period in my father’s life are vague, but I do remember how he changed. Subtle qualities of his laugh, his smile, his very presence vanished and never reappeared. There was the father I had before his depression and the father I had after. He was always a good parent, a dutiful husband, and a diligent minister. But the man who survived depression was chastened in ways I could never describe with words.

. . . . Peering into the poem’s ominous shadows with my students, I found that world a scary place. It is “the darkest evening of the year”; the only sound is the “the sweep / Of easy wind and downy flake.” For the person who is depressed, the somber winter landscape mirrors the dark, frozen world inside. It could seem as if one has finally gotten to the heart of life itself, and there is nothing there.

. . . . At the celebration of Frost’s 85th birthday, Lionel Trilling described Frost as “a terrifying poet.” When I first read his work, I would have wondered what could be terrifying about snow falling in the woods on a winter’s evening. The landscape of the poem reminded me of a Currier & Ives print. But Frost captures the essence of depression in the poem’s understated simplicity, as if depression itself is the ultimate understatement: the inability to see anything beyond a frozen landscape.

More here: “Sharing Those Woods, Dark and Deep

And here’s Frost himself, reciting the poem in its entirety, prefaced by a brief but effective introduction narrated by Garrison Keillor, who describes the poem’s famous origin in a burst of inspiration of almost hallucinatory vividness after Frost had worn himself out writing through the depths of a sleepless night:

About Matt Cardin

Teeming Brain founder and editor Matt Cardin is the author of DARK AWAKENINGS, DIVINATIONS OF THE DEEP, A COURSE IN DEMONIC CREATIVITY: A WRITER'S GUIDE TO THE INNER GENIUS, and the forthcoming TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN. He is also the editor of BORN TO FEAR: INTERVIEWS WITH THOMAS LIGOTTI and the academic encyclopedias MUMMIES AROUND THE WORLD, GHOSTS, SPIRITS, AND PSYCHICS: THE PARANORMAL FROM ALCHEMY TO ZOMBIES, and HORROR LITERATURE THROUGH HISTORY.

Posted on March 26, 2013, in Arts & Entertainment, Religion & Philosophy and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I’m not sure I agree that this is perhaps the most famous poem of the twentieth century (The Waste Land?), but it is certainly one of my favourites. It’s achingly evocative.

  2. Frost wrote a slew of disturbing poems. To whit, “Acquainted With the Night,” “Bereft,” “Two Witches,” “Design.” Even “The Road Not Taken,” from a certain perspective, is frightening.

    • Yes. An excellent point. “Desert Places” also belongs on this list. My story “Desert Places” (published in both the anthology ALONE ON THE DARKSIDE and my DARK AWAKENINGS collection, and slated to appear again this year in my next collection, TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN) was titled after it. I prefaced the story with two epigraphs chosen deliberately for their jarring thematic juxtaposition. The first is from Lovecraft: “Men with minds sensitive to hereditary impulse will always tremble at the thought of the hidden and fathomless worlds of strange life which may pulsate in the gulfs beyond the stars.” The second is the final stanza of Frost’s poem:

      They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
      Between stars — on stars where no human race is.
      I have it in me so much nearer home
      To scare myself with my own desert places.

      An ice-cold gut punch, that.

  3. yes. yes. yes. Wasteland might be ‘more famous’ but who quotes it? Mary Oliver does an excellent job of evaluating this poem in A Poetry Handbook. It is an amazing piece. Though certainly not to pick any fights, I’d have to suggest Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night has more mileage. In any case, what an excellent discussion on the marvelous poem, thanks for putting it out there.

  4. I first came across Frost’s poem in a Greek language collection of Cthulhu Mythos stories [ the anthology also contained verses from The King in Yellow ]; that was back in 1993. I remembered because the editor had used the repeated last line in either his introduction or the epilogue. There must be something in the poem and in Frost’s work in general that coincides with the mood and atmosphere prevalent in Lovecraftian/Cosmic horror and I think that must be the pessimism and the despair.

    Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening also reminds me of Lermontov’s Alone I Pass A Lonely Road, although in the latter the lonely wanderer does not feel like moving on and instead dreams of restful oblivion.

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